I have always found Mates of State to be one of the most compelling stories in music. For those of you who don’t know, their two members, Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel, are married (get the name?) and are now raising children in an otherwise normal life. For a while, music was just an aside for them as they worked their 9-5s in education and medicine, even as their albums were starting to sell. It’s really one of the most interesting backgrounds I have ever read for a band. Maybe it is that reason alone that I have found it difficult to dislike them. On some level, doesn’t it seem like it’s your parents out there making music? I remember first discovering them when I heard a cover they did of the Phantom Planet song “California” for the show The OC and just really feeling a comfort in they way they performed it. It seems like they have it figured out when they sing and this remains the case on Mountaintops. I don’t know if its a parental instinct or what, but they really just always give off the vibe of a band that knows what’s going on.
The album is certainly far from perfect, but it is relentlessly confident. As always, they spread a rather cheery uplifting message with cheery uplifting beats all dubbed over with cheery uplifting lyrics. Get the picture? They go about it in a more artistic and respectable way. You can compare their theme to They Might Be Giants, but to compare their styles would just be insulting to everyone. After tuning twenty seconds of tuning of the synthesizer orchestra on the opening track, “Palomino,” we get to an emphatic fist pumping beat with appropriate “ohhhhhhs.” To be honest, if this song doesn’t bring a reluctant smile to your face, then you have a heart of ice. To quote Kori and Jason, “You know you’re not in hell!” The good vibes never really seem to stop as the music flows right into the second track, “Maracas,” which is equally as positive as the track before it. The lyrics are obviously a direct address conversation between Kori and Jason (as the entire album ends up seeming to be) that reflects on a relationship that has lasted as long as theirs. Instead of flooding it with nostalgia or regret, Kori simply says, “I’m taking you back” before ending the song by repeatedly chanting “syncopated breathing,” which I can only take to mean that they are still on the same page in music and in life.
This sort of encouraging synthed out dialogue continues for the remainder of the tracks. They keep up their spirits with “please sway with me” on “Sway,” a borderline piano/brass-driven show tune metaphor for their courtship with “Total Serendipity,” and the rather obviously titled “At Least I Have You,” where they both sing over each other. That brings me to what is probably my biggest complaint of the album. While it is very clear that they are a team through all of this (seriously if you don’t get that by the completion of this album, there is a strong possibility that you have suffered a rather serious head injury), they make the album feel just a little bit crowded with their insistence to sing every song together. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the two strongest songs on the album are those two opening tracks. Ironically enough, it appears to be the only time in the album where one Mate steps forward and the other accepts their roll in the background (Jason leading “Palomino” and Kori taking over “Maracas”). As for the rest of it, they always seem to be sharing the same microphone and have me feeling just a little bit claustrophobic amidst an otherwise liberating sound.
I will always admire a band or musician who is not afraid to make their music as personal and intimate as Mates of State has done here, so long as I don’t get the feeling you’re faking it. Sing about who you are, not about how you wish to be seen. They do just that. These are all songs about two people staying together throughout the years and consistently finding one another as well as themselves through their music. It’s not terribly fascinating but it’s about as honest as you can get. Even if you don’t dig the sound, you’re bound to appreciate that connection.